– Hundreds of thousands of Colombians poured onto the streets across the country Sunday in massive rallies demanding freedom for hundreds of hostages. They were joined by demonstrators in 80 cities around the world in a show of solidarity. It was the loudest message to leftist rebels yet to stop kidnapping and lay down their arms.
Wearing white T-shirts with slogans such as "Free them now" or simply the name of a hostage, marchers in Bogotá wound through the capital's main avenues, filling plazas and public parks. Television broadcasts here showed similar scenes in every major Colombian city.
The marches were called following the July 2 rescue of 15 top-level hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, three American defense contractors, and 11 members of Colombia's security forces.
Ms. Betancourt led a simultaneous event in Paris Sunday where she read out a list of the names of 27 hostages still held by the FARC as bargaining chips for negotiations with the government and called for their release. "We want freedom for everyone," said Betancourt.
"The time has come to exchange rifles for roses," she said in a call to FARC leaders before ceding the stage to Colombian pop singer Juanes and Spanish actor and singer Miguel Bose, who gave a free concert.
Drawing support from presidents to pop stars
In Leticia, the capital of Colombia's Amazon Province, pop stars Shakira and Carlos Vives gave a free concert, sharing a stage with President Álvaro Uribe, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and Peruvian President Alan García.
The marches coincided with Colombian independence day, which is usually marked by solemn military parades. On Sunday, however, entire families turned out to march for the hostages.
"We have to support those who are still there," said Alejandro Martinez, who marched through central Bogotá with his wife and his son wearing white T-shirts that they painted themselves with the yellow, blue, and red colors of the Colombian flag. "We have to let them know that we will not forget them."
"I pray every day for the hostages," said Gloria Rodriguez, waving a small white flag that read "Freedom for all."
The FARC continues to hold an estimated 700 hostages – mostly for ransom. Other rebel groups, paramilitary militias, and common criminals are holding more than 2,000 others, according to the Fundacion País Libre which tracks kidnappings and offers help to victims.
The number of kidnappings has dropped dramatically from a decade ago when Colombia was considered the kidnapping capital of the world, but abductions still are frequent. On Friday, the FARC kidnapped 10 people from a boat on the Atrato River in the Pacific coastal province of Chocó.
Families of remaining kidnap victims fear that after the Colombian military duped the FARC into handing over their most prized hostages in what they believed was a humanitarian mission, the other captives will be forgotten. The kidnappings of Betancourt and the three Americans especially had generated wide international interest in the Colombia hostage crisis.
Disconcerting the captors
Officially, the FARC dismisses the marches as government propaganda. But the hostages rescued this month said that news of similar rallies in February had reached them in their jungle prisons and lifted their spirits, while disconcerting their captors.
The FARC, who have been fighting for 44 years to topple the government, have been hit hard lately by military and intelligence operations that have weakened their structure and led to significant desertions and arrests. The FARC are estimated to still have about 9,000 fighters, down from about 17,000 a decade ago.
Colombians are grateful to President Uribe for having pushed the rebels back from the major urban centers, forcing them to retreat to the jungles and mountains of the Andean country. His popularity hit an all-time high following the rescue of the hostages, peaking at 91 percent. He was first voted president in 2002, then won a second term in 2006. There is widespread speculation that he may seek to change the Constitution to run for a third.
At the rally in Bogotá, a group of Uribe supporters chanted "One, two, three, Uribe, one more time."